Like many thousands of others, I listened to David Attenborough‘s most recent BBC documentary Extinction: The Facts with a growing sense of alarm as he described, and we viewed, the evidence of the devastating declines in biodiversity which have taken place throughout the world during my farming lifetime.

Thankfully, there was just a hint of optimism at the end of the programme, with pictures of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, that had been on the edge of extinction but are now recovering through coexistence with sustainably managed food production.

It was implicitly acknowledged in the programme that due to the destruction of the majority of the world’s areas of pristine wilderness (as graphically illustrated in a time sensitive infographic), the front line of biodiversity protection has now shifted to the world’s farms.

The surprising news of the House of Lords debate on the UK Agriculture Bill was that a cross-party coalition of peers has managed to pass a majority amendment to the bill (majority of 280 to 218) challenging its deficiencies on several fronts and including the wording:  ‘The Secretary of State must develop a standardised set of reporting metrics on health and sustainability across the food system by which progress on implementation of the strategy can be measured.’

It also calls for a sustainable food assurance scheme which would clearly need to be linked to the reporting metrics, so as to empower people wishing to buy sustainably produced food in the marketplace.

As you may know, the SFT has been working on the development of an internationally harmonised framework for measuring on farm sustainability for the last four years, and we are making significant progress. The work has been led by our farmers and land managers group, which represents a full range of different farming systems, from intensive arable, extensive livestock, to smaller scale organic and mixed farming systems. What has been remarkable is the degree of trust and consensus which has prevailed throughout the many meetings that we have convened, mostly in the flesh, but due to COVID-19, now by Zoom!

Needless to say, we have been informing Peers and Ministers along the road, with incremental degrees of success. A good example of the progress we are making, linked to the House of Lords developments referred to above, is a discussion which took place this week in a virtual farmer leadership Zoom meeting with Lord Goldsmith, the Environment Minister, also responsible for COP26.

In my intervention, I explained how the UK had the potential to provide leadership in brokering a trade deal at COP26 using sustainability metrics to inform and define all future international trade in food. He seemed to like this idea, and as a result we will be having a Zoom meeting with him on 12 October.

All this leads to the crucial question, how can we reliably measure on farm sustainability? This is critical, because although most people would agree that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, until now, most of the government farming incentives and disincentives have been linked to practices rather than outcomes – for understandable reasons, because it is not easy to establish reliable metrics for sustainability outcomes. This is one of the reasons why the organic standards are mostly related to practices rather than outcomes.

Bearing this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to pick one of the categories of the SFT sustainability framework, namely biodiversity, that we have been exploring as a case study for this blog.

By way of background, our farmers and land managers working group divided the impact of farming systems into ten categories, eleven if you include productivity and profitability. These are soil, water, emissions, energy and resource use, biodiversity, nutrient cycling, crops, livestock and social and cultural impact.

The objective of the working group has been to identify and agree three high-level metrics for each of the categories which we hope will reliably capture the impact of the farming system. Our aim throughout has been to try to ensure that these are relatively simple to measure, ideally by the farmers themselves, as we believe that the system of measuring sustainability should be as producer-friendly as possible.

Measuring biodiversity is a particular challenge and one that we have not yet fully resolved. A very brief summary of the discussions that we have had on this issue would be as follows:

  • Should we be measuring indicator species and, if so, which ones?
  • Should it be species at the top of the food chain, because if they are present that means the food sources are there as well?
  • Or, if this is too difficult, should we be measuring the species in the middle, on the assumption that if the food is there, then the high-level species will be able to find food and therefore be present as well, even if we don’t see them on day of the survey?

We haven’t yet resolved these questions, but we are hoping to involve some of the conservation organisations who, after all, have been monitoring biodiversity impacts for decades, as evidenced by the ‘State of Nature‘ report and the equivalent international version which was launched by the IUCN this week, both of which have chronicled the catastrophic declines in biodiversity which are increasingly being understood to be related to changes in farming practice.

Many of the discussions in the farmers land managers working group have derived from personal experience, so I thought I might share mine with you now. During the last week, I’ve been getting the cows in for milking early in the morning and have been amazed and delighted by the large numbers of bats which follow the cows from the field up to the milking parlour. If we had a ‘batometer’ which could not only identify the different species but also count the number of bats, might this be one of the biodiversity indicators which would act as a proxy for the presence of a whole load of other species? I don’t know the answer to this question, but hopefully the bat people do! It would need to be a farmer-friendly app, because obviously most farmers cannot identify the bats, or even hear them in my case since you have to have very good young ears to do that and mine are well past their ‘best before’ date!

If not bats, should it be birds or butterflies? Of course, these are not mutually exclusive. One of the indicators that the working group have agreed is that farmers should participate in the Big Farmland Bird Count, since this is already going on. Another agreed biodiversity indicator is earthworms, so we have already included an earthworm count in the biodiversity metrics, since we know these are a good proxy for healthy soil life.

Lastly, I am convinced that plant biodiversity should be included and I’m wondering whether it might be possible to include this in the assessment. I say this because I believe that the declines in on-farm biodiversity could be reversed if we farm in harmony with nature. By farming in harmony with nature, I mean building fertility through crop rotations, and avoiding the use of nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides. I am convinced from my own observations over 47 years that these simple steps would dramatically reverse the decline in farm biodiversity. But unless we are measuring it, we cannot prove it! To do this, we could measure the plant biodiversity which coexists with pasture land, temporary leys and arable crops.

Apologies for the length of this blog, but I do hope it will stimulate further conversation. I have the feeling that we are on the threshold of a transition to more sustainable practice which, if it could be made economically viable, could quite quickly become mainstream. But, and this is to state the obvious, this very much depends on such systems being financially viable which in turn requires demonstrating their positive impacts as a precondition for obtaining taxpayers and market support.